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How Can Rural Communities Address Obesity?

There are many community-based efforts to prevent and address obesity across the country. Some use traditional behavior modification and counseling/educational approaches to encourage individuals to make positive changes to their lifestyles. Others use social support and companionship to help people lose weight and maintain a healthy weight.

A third category of community-based interventions targets changes in the places where people live, learn, work, and play. These are referred to as policy, systems, and environmental (PSE) changes. PSE changes increase opportunities for making healthy choices, targeting multiple levels of influence, including individual behaviors, family settings, and community institutions.

It is easier to find programs targeting individual-level changes than those addressing PSE changes. Yet, there are efforts to examine multi-level approaches in rural settings. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) previously distributed funding to communities nationwide to aid in implementing environmental changes using the Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW) program. In 2014, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Leadership for Healthy Communities released a rural childhood obesity prevention toolkit that includes policy options for community health engagement to encourage active living and healthy eating.

Community Strategies
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed a guide with community strategies for healthy eating and active living. The guide also provides a single measure for each strategy to assess progress. These strategies can be used to conduct baseline assessment, identify priorities for action, and measure change over time. There are 24 strategies divided into six categories:

  • Promote the availability of affordable healthy food and beverages
  • Support healthy food and beverage choices
  • Encourage breastfeeding
  • Encourage physical activity or limit sedentary activity among children and youth
  • Create safe communities that support physical activity
  • Encourage communities to organize for change

Some strategies listed in the guide include:

  • Increasing availability to healthier food and beverage choices in public service venues
  • Improving access to supermarkets
  • Increasing the amount of physical activity through physical education and extracurricular activities
  • Improving access to outdoor recreational activities
  • Enhancing infrastructure for bicycling/walking
  • Improving zoning for mixed-used development

For further information, see Recommended Community Strategies and Measurements to Prevent Obesity in the United States: Implementation and Measurement Guide, July 2009.

Models for Communities